Schalk Brits was reclining in Ibiza when the text message came through. He had a cocktail in hand as the sun began to set on the Spanish island.
This was to be his last jaunt before he entered the “real world”. Until then his life had been professional sport — a great jol for anyone lucky enough to get there but one that inevitably can’t last forever. And now, finally, the time had come to retire.
The message claimed to be from Springbok coach Rassie Erasmus: Would he consider throwing on the green and gold one more time?
Damn Vincent Koch taking the piss again, Brits figured.
“I’ll be the strongest, fittest, prettiest, biggest hooker I’ve ever been,” he replied in jest.
The wisecracks would continue for another three messages until Brits’s wife cautioned that, hey, maybe this really is Rassie. Brits did well to heed the advice.
It’s clear in retrospect that Erasmus was after a leader. Perhaps not an outspoken figurehead — he already had Siya Kolisi for that — but someone to lead by example in the background, a veteran willing to put in the gritty extra hours on the training ground that promised no accolades or public praise.
That’s the reputation Brits had earned in his career. He’s known as the nice guy of rugby; an affable character who has a natural allure about him.
He would tell you that his willingness stems from an inescapable feeling that his entire sporting career was bonus time. A period in which he was inexplicably allowed to play the game he loved and nothing else.
“I never thought I’d be a professional rugby player,” he says of getting into the top level game. “I was quite surprised that someone would pay me to play rugby. It became a way for me to pay for my studies at university and for me to get my dad off my back and stop telling me when and how I must study. That was my main reason.
“Then after I finished my studies I said I’ll give rugby one go before I try the business world and 15 or 16 years later I’ve just finished. It’s been an amazing ride. There’s so many people I’ve met along the way that have had a significant impact in my life, both as a rugby player and as a person.”
Brits would begin his rubgy career as a journeyman in the South African scene. After a start at Western Province he would soon find himself in Gauteng wearing Golden Lions and Cats shirts. From there it was back down south to the Stormers where he would plant roots for the first time, making 51 appearances over four seasons.
But it was overseas where the hooker truly turned his career into one of consequence. Named players’ player of the year in England during his debut 2009–2010 campaign, Brits would go on to spend nine years with the Saracens and make more than 200 appearances. In
that time he would win four Premiership titles as well as two European Champions Cups — honours that have forced him into conversations about the league’s greatest imports.
Yet success found in the Northern Hemisphere didn’t equally translate to Springbok recognition. Peter de Villiers and Heyneke Meyer would both offer run-outs here and there but they were often of minimal consequence — a handful of largely substitute appearances spread over nearly a decade.
With that in mind it’s easy to sympathise with Brits’s disbelief when the new man in charge went out of his way to personally request that he hold off on retirement. Much of the rugby-watching public certainly didn’t get it: What could a bit-part veteran who would be 38 by the time of the World Cup offer to the team?
Erasmus had worked with Brits at the Stormers. He understood that experience harnessed by the right attitude could offer invaluable intangibles. He is also a tactician who made it clear that he expected everybody in the squad to play a specific role. And Brits, despite his unlikely inclusion, understood his would not be in the opening pack.
“That was quite a big emphasis before World Cup,” he says. “What kind of sacrifices are you willing to make as an individual? Rassie always focused on that in training: Is your interest yourself, or is it your team and your country? Luckily, with the individuals we had, it was quite easy to manage the squad. What helped is that at World Cups player remuneration is similar for everyone. So the team goes well, the squad goes well.”
Brits’s action on the pitch saw him captain the “B-team”, essentially the backup portion of the squad sent to do battle with the likes of Namibia and Canada. In the former he began as eighth man, a position he had seemingly added to his repertoire to bolster the versatility factor he offered.
Perhaps the most important function of the second string, however, was to prep the match-day unit for the opposition that lay in wait. Led by Brits and Elton Jantjies, the players would scout ahead of the next game and mimic the rival team in training. These exercises allowed the coaching staff to identify weaknesses the Bok game plan could exploit. The following performances brought results, if not universal plaudits back home. Until the final against England, the South African style of play was a source of a great deal of groaning — particularly when the ball was repeatedly returned to Faf de Klerk to look for a territory-gaining box kick.
Obviously unwilling to share the intricacies of the setup at the time, Brits says that there was nothing to do but grin and bear the criticism.
“We actually had a great period, 2018 going into 2019. We only lost in 2019 against New Zealand,” he points out. “Even then the amount of bad publicity the players got after that game … and even that was only a couple of errors we made. But it’s hard when you don’t have all of the information to write.
“Especially you [the media]. To write something that you don’t understand, or at least understand our game plan, you just write what you see. That makes it hard, and it makes it hard for the public to support [us] as well. But I guess that’s how it is sometimes. I don’t know anything about writing but if I start blaming your writing and I have no idea why you’re writing like you do, then you need to expand on what you and why you do it. It’s only when a formation becomes freely available that people will understand why we played like we played.”
It goes without saying that the approach was ultimately vindicated. A true squad effort captured the Springboks their third World Cup and sent the country into ecstasy.
For Brits it was the unlikeliest of endings to a career that had already ended a year earlier.
Metaphorically, it put him back on that beach in Ibiza — a life full
of memories but a future that remains unexplored. Now, finally, the real world will hold out no longer. The dream has ended but there’s no reason to mourn. With a demonstrated ability to adapt when called upon, we’d probably be wasting our time if we worry about how well Brits will do now that he’s retired from rugby.
“I’m going into private equity,” he says of his new endeavour. “I look forward to that. It’s going to be a bit different to what I’m used to … I haven’t worked a day in my life so it’s definitely going to be different from what I’m used to.”